Can't Listen Anymore
BACKGROUND: This week we drove two hours up windy mountain roads to balmy Palm Desert so I could give an author talk on Compassionate Listening from my book, Communication Breakthrough. While the view was pleasant and green with new Spring flowers popping up on grassy hills, we were also in the path of migrating butterflies that look like monarchs but are smaller and called “Painted Ladies”. I am sorry to report that driving narrow winding roads at the speed limit makes it impossible to avoid hearing many thuds and seeing bright yellow smears hit the windshield. I cheered on the butterflies that made it and felt bad about the ones we collided with and killed.
PROBLEM: Although my presentation covered listening mistakes and a compassionate listening recipe, two people wanted to talk about the other side – not how to open up and be more receptive, but what to do when you do not want to listen any longer to someone who is boring, repetitive or dragging you down. One woman in the library audience talked about her husband and reported, “I don't want to listen to him. He just complains about the same thing over and over. I’m angry.” Instead of addressing her concern right away, I acknowledged and paraphrased what she said, “You are angry and tired of listening to him.” Feeling seen, she mellowed out a little. Another woman was tired of listening to her daughter complain about the daughter’s recent divorce, saying, “I spend hours on the phone with her daily. She is grinding me down”. How do we get out of a conversation, where we feel stuck listening?
SOLUTION: To stop a conversation use “I” statements to own how you are affected. You can use the formula, “When you…(e.g. “say the same thing over and over”); I feel…(e.g. “sad for you, helpless and feel dragged down by your pain”; and I want to… (“take a break; let’s do something else now”). As a spouse or mother it is not good to say, “I am bored, tired and not interested in what you say.” “You” statements (e.g. “You sit around all day”) are taken as criticism and blame. Mothers are powerful. Children remember. Here are some excuses you can use to get off the phone: “I have to cook; do an errand; go to the bathroom…” The mother in the audience told me her daughter would counter those with, “just a few more minutes” and Mom would give in. Therefore the daughter knew she could push the limit. This Mom needs to set the limit because she is the one who is bothered. Setting boundaries is an assertive behavior. There is no need to be aggressive and criticize, blame or tell someone you are tired of them. There is also no need to be passive and continue to listen when you are uncomfortable and need a break. You have a right to take care of yourself.
SUMMARY: To stop listening, state your case. Don't be mean but don’t let the speaker walk all over you. Find the middle (assertive) path to maneuver your car safely and do your best to minimize harm by sharing the road with the butterflies fluttering by.
POSTSCRIPT: I have found that when a person shares the pain in their heart, which is often beneath a defense like repetitive complaining, we are not bored. We feel closer to them and more interested in listening. So, if you notice you are bored listening to a repetitive story and are not ready to give up, it may be worth probing and asking someone to go deeper by asking, “How does that affect you? Or, “you look sad or angry when you say that.” If they share at a deeper level, they often feel better and you often feel closer to them. For notes on compassionate listening revisit my 3.8.19 blogpost, “Can’t Keep Quiet”.